I never quite got the appeal of tribute bands.
Maybe it’s because, with a few exceptions, I’ve had the good fortune to see most all of the bands I’ve wanted to see within my lifetime. Or maybe it’s because I am perfectly OK with forgoing the experience and not accepting pale imitations.
Whatever the reason, no one was more surprised than me when I ended up buying tickets to see The Musical Box. After all, having seen the real thing 45 years earlier, I really didn’t need to make the trip out to Buffalo to see them.
But after a glowing report from my son, who had seen them a few weeks before, and after a little due diligence, curiosity rather than nostalgia got the better of me.
I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
You see, what sets this bunch of French Canadians apart from their rivals in nostalgia is their authenticity. Their goal is not simply to imitate but to replicate as precisely as possible the experience of seeing Genesis during the mid 1970s.
In this case, it meant going beyond simply dressing for the part, though, as with everything else in the show, they absolutely had that down. As expected, all the masks and outfits that were the signature of the Gabriel-era incarnation of the band were there –the eerie luminous eyes and batwings of “Watcher of the Skies”;
the ridiculous Britannia costume of “Selling England by the Pound”; the silly floppy gardener’s hat of “I Know What I Like”; the creepy old man mask of “The Musical Box”; and the flower
and geometrical box headwear
of “Supper’s Ready” — each made their appearance at their appointed times.
But The Musical Box took everything much deeper than that. Lead singer Denis Gagné, for example, managed not only to sing but to talk like Gabriel as he introduced each song with the odd, shaggy dog stories of the period. Drummer Marc Laflamme donned dungarees in homage to the Phil Collins of the day. And keyboardist Guillaume Rivard even played a temperamental mellotron that had to be fixed mid show.
It doesn’t get much more authentic than that.
No wonder the band has licensed the show from the original band and registered it as a theatrical performance. The set was note-for-note, instrument-for-instrument, (almost) song-for-song, and lighting-cue-for-lighting-cue identical to the 1973 Selling England by the Pound tour that I saw as a wide-eyed 13-year-old.
That meant a simple production that consisted of around three dozen par 64s, a crap ton of black light, and some ancient projectors that screened the original slides from the ’73 tour onto backdrops behind the band. It was an old-fashioned lighting plot, but it served to enhance the show rather than being the show.
Yes, kids, this was your grandfather’s rock concert, faithfully reproduced from the mellotron intro to “Watcher of the Skies” through to the silver lame suit change in “Supper’s Ready.” About the only concession to modernity was the flying line array PA, though I’m sure the audience would have been OK with some digital tuners, too, which would have reduced the annoyingly excessive tuning that went on between many songs, even to the extent of drowning out parts of Gagné’s introductions.
And here I will be that nerdy fan who has to complain at the exclusion of “The Knife” in favor of the extended, anachronistic “Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974/In the Cage/Hairless Heart/Counting Out Time” encore.
It wasn’t that this selection from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was inauthentic, or even that it was bad, because it was expertly handled like the rest of the evening’s material. But the original 1973 encore choice worked because it was a simple, aggressive exclamation point that balanced out the musical complexities of the evening as a whole, whereas the Lamb selection provided no definitive conclusion to the evening’s festivities.
(I am not so nerdy, however, to be upset by the “Horizons”/”More Fool Me” trade off. Hats off to François Gagnon for beautifully interpreting the Steve Hackett instrumental and sparing us the insipid Collins ballad that was the first, sad indication of what was to happen a decade after Selling England was released).
Even so, for me, the whole night was a strange revisiting of a very specific moment in time, where a new, adult depth of experience merged with the teenager’s sense of wonder that I haven’t forgotten to this day. Some moments, especially the sheer drama of “The Musical Box” and the beautifully rendered “Firth of Fifth” sucked me right back in time and brought a sentimental tear to my eye. And others simply made me appreciate how few bands, tribute or not, could do justice to the intricate dynamics of songs like “Selling England by the Pound” or “Cinema Show,” or fully harness the epic build of “Supper’s Ready” in the way The Musical Box did.
These guys have done their homework, and their meticulous attention to detail amazingly manages to catch decades-old lightning in a postmodern bottle.
I still remain skeptical about tribute bands. But I’m glad that The Musical Box won me over on this night by taking the idea to a whole different place and by keeping the legacy of classic Genesis intact.